I spent much of the past week on my phone, browsing mobile content storefronts, accessing local business listings and checking out the latest baseball scores. Surprisingly, though, my thumbs are well-rested?which is a feat, considering all the megabytes of data I accessed. What?s my secret? I let my voice do the heavy lifting.
And there was only a little screaming involved.
Long hailed as a potentially huge driver of revenues, speech-recognition technology is one of the hottest areas in wireless. Microsoft Corp. earlier this year jumped onto the field with the acquisition of Tellme Networks Inc. for a rumored $800 million. Nuance Communications Inc.?which last week agreed to acquire predictive-text developer Tegic Communications Inc. for $265 million?has shelled out $800 million more in the past year or so on competing speech-recognition players. Google Inc. is moving aggressively as well, testing a voice-driven search service that delivers local business listings, and a handful of smaller players are also making noise.
And all those millions of dollars actually may be justified: Not only do carriers and other companies use the stuff to slash customer-care costs, the technology gives consumers a way to minimize keystrokes and bypass carrier decks that have more layers than baklava. Early offerings seemed only to exacerbate the problems they were meant to solve, but more recent speech-recognition offerings are now something to talk about (bad pun intended).
Google was one of the first to offer a consumer-facing, voice-driven search service for mobile users, and the product is impressive. A call from a fixed-line or mobile to 1-800-Goog-411 asks the user to state location and business name or category, and some quick local searches went nearly flawlessly. After a few successful searches for Denver-based businesses?including Pagliacci?s, which, surprisingly, proved no problem?I gambled on Wu Liang Ye, a favorite Chinese joint in midtown Manhattan. I upped the challenge by butchering the name, but the service still recognized the restaurant, returned a phone number (in about a second) and connected the call. Free.
A call to 1-800-Free-411 was almost as painless, if a little more time-consuming. After sitting through a 10-second ad for McDonald?s, I offered up the name of a local bookstore. I had to repeat the name and voice a couple of confirmations?and sit through another come-on, this one from MasterCard?but I got the number.
A third service, from 1-800-555-Tell, proved as impressive as Google?s, but presented a broader list of options. In addition to local listings, callers can search for ringtones, stock quotes, news headlines and entertainment information, among other offerings. A search for the Bluestar Brewing Company in San Antonio, Texas, proved flawless, and even offered to send a text with contact information to my phone. A request for baseball updates brought a menu of scores updated within the half-inning. Not bad.
But while the technology has made great strides in interpreting what users are saying, it fails miserably when it?s clumsily integrated. A trip through my carrier?s on-deck voice recognition system was excruciating; I had to keep looking at my phone?s screen to see if my voice command was understood. After trying this about eight times I surrendered. Thanks, but I?ll go back to my thumbs for this service.
Google, Microsoft and others have their work cut out for them in convincing users to wend their way through the mobile content world with their mouths and not their hands. And voice-driven mobile search providers must find ways to monetize their offerings without turning off consumers. But the key to simplifying the overwhelmingly complex user experience that shackles mobile data may just be thing phones were made for in the first place.